Film Review: Wuthering Heights – O Heathcliff! O Cathy! OMG!

A while back audiences experienced a series of screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s 19th century novels.  Now, we seem to have a cinematic cycle of revivals of the Brontë Sisters’ Gothic romances.  Charlotte’s oft-filmed Jane Eyre (the first movie version was shot by 1910) returned to the big screen last year.  Now it’s the turn of Emily Brontë’s likewise much made (originally in 1920) and much-remade Wuthering Heights (published in 1847) to be reincarnated on the silver screen.  So what’s different and new about English director Andrea Arnold’s rendition, which she co-wrote with Olivia Hetreed (Girl With a Pearl Earring)?  

At first blush, one might think that adding an interracial dimension to this tale of thwarted love is a brand new 21st century brainstorm.  I hate to dampen the Eureka! moment, but William Wyler’s 1939 version — the most famous adaptation, this Best Picture Oscar nominee was co-written by no less than Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and John Huston — co-starred Englishmen Laurence Olivier and David Niven, who played opposite Merle Oberon.  While her character, Catherine Earnshaw, is certainly of pure British pedigree, Ms. Oberon herself was reportedly born in Bombay and of Welsh-Indian ancestry.  So the inter-ethnic element was already arguably implicit in Wyler’s Wuthering, although to be fair it is far more explicitly explored in Arnold’s film.  

Solomon Glave, who plays young Heathcliff, and James Howson, who portrays Heathcliff as a young man, both appear to be Black, UK-born actors who make their acting debuts in this tragedy about unrequited love.  The lead male character is a foundling, brought to Wuthering Heights by the erstwhile Bible-thumping Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), owner of the eponymous remote farm located in northern England near windswept, mystic moors. Although Heathcliff’s color is much remarked upon (especially by Cathy’s older brother, the harebrained Hindley, roguishly played by Lee Shaw), his precise ethnic origins are never fully explained.  Although if I heard correctly, at one point he’s referred to as a “Lascar,” which — if that’s the case — would make Heathcliff from India or another country east of the Cape of Good Hope at South Africa.  However, I do think this Heathcliff is meant to be of indeterminate African ancestry.

Be that as it may (or may not), his dark skin complicates matters greatly and amplifies why he is “unworthy” of being loved by Cathy.  Heathcliff grows up in close quarters with Cathy, portrayed as a young female of indeterminate age(s) by newcomer Shannon Beer, then as an adult by Kaya Scodelario, both of them apparently Caucasian British actresses.  Living a hard scrabble existence at the farm, she and Heathcliff romp on the moors — away from civilization’s restraints — together, sleep in the same room and develop deep bonds for one another, unhindered and unimpeded by the taboo of incest (unlike Hindley, which may explain part of his brutish antipathy towards Heathcliff, who unlike him, is free of that social constraint).

As Heathcliff and Cathy mature he is deemed to be her social inferior (not least of all because he’s like, you know, Black) and they are torn asunder, becoming arguably the most star-crossed lovers in English literature.  The wild child becomes a “lady” and marries properly, at least according to 19th century stuffy status conscious British standards.  Heathcliff doesn’t exactly sit still for it as he is shunned because he started out life as a mere servant, a stable boy, who in this retelling is Black.

Before Sigmund Freud evolved his scientific theory of the id versus superego, the Brontë Sisters did so on the artistic level in their Gothic classics.  Heathen Heathcliff represents the unbridled id, the unrestrained instinctual self. Cathy’s id is at war with her superego, the constraints and inhibition imposed upon her by society.  As aboriginal heathenism clashes with Christian original sin, their saga encapsulates what Freud would later call “civilization and its discontents” in a scientific book of that title written only a mere 82 years after Em wrote her epistle.

At the heart of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights is the thwarting of sexuality.  It remains open to speculation as to whether the very youthful Heathcliff and Cathy indulge in actual sex play, or if they never ever act on their sexual impulses, including even kissing, until adulthood (and when it is too late).  Take your pick; it’s subject to intepretation.  In any case, 165 years after Emily’s classic was published, one would hope that the notion of sexual repression would by now be an extinct “Brontë-saurus.”  Alas, the brouhaha surrounding birth control, “legitimate rape,” and so on — that actually began during this election cycle with Obama’s refusal to allow “under-aged” females over the counter access to so-called “Plan B” morning after pills — proves that those puritanical dinosaurs still trod the Earth.  (Thus dispatching spectral Heathcliffs and Cathys on eternal roaming of the moors.)     

The supernatural angle of Emily’s novel and the 1939 classic film is played down in Arnold’s film. Emily’s literary device of a character named “Lockwood” demanding that Nelly (Simone Jackson) relate the saga of Heathcliff and Cathy is not used in this adaptation, which is largely told from Heathcliff’s point of view.  Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s moors, shot on location in the Yorkshire Dales, are appropriately moody.  (BTW, of the eight Oscars Wyler’s 1939 version was nominated for, the sole Academy Award it won was for the cinematography by the immortal Gregg Toland, who in the next couple of years went on to lens John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane).  Ryan’s close-ups of flora and fauna are also very elemental, rooting 19th century humans firmly in the Earth, as much a part of nature as the insects, beasts and plant life of their very rustic surroundings. However, there’s one too many a close-up a la early D.W. Griffith of a caged canary, an all too obvious metaphor of poor Cathy, who palpably yearns to fuck the daylights out of poor Hetahcliff but is restrained Mr. Linton (Oliver Milburn) and the other trappings of the civilized self.  Hail Britannia!

Beer is flat and not particularly appealing as the child/early teen Cathy.  Scodelario is more attractive but sometimes stagey as grownup, sexually frustrated Cathy, the epitome of the conflicted, divided self.  However, both Glave and Howson as the younger and more mature Heathcliff, always strike the right note, from snarling to defiance to howling at the moon.  Sex, after all, cannot be denied, when all is said and done (and undone).  Even — perhaps especially — in regards to forbidden love.

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